Listening Closer: Giddens, Tharpe, and a Musical Communion
Every Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies, while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.
When a music critic declares an album “perfect,” it tends to say more about that listener’s enthusiasm—and, perhaps, hubris—than it does about the record. So I’m holding myself back from that kind of overreach here. Suffice it to say that I’d have a hard time imagining a stronger “debut” record for Rhiannon Giddens than Tomorrow Is My Turn, an album that seems to immediately negate its own title by declaring “Today! Today belongs to Giddens.”
I put “debut” in quotes because—as the one woman in the trio Carolina Chocolate Drops—Giddens has already made a strong impression on those who have been paying attention to Americana and folk music. And, by many eyewitness (ear-witness?) accounts, she stole the show at September 2013’s Another Day, Another Time concert in New York City’s Town Hall, T Bone Burnett’s all-star revue celebrating the music and musical influences of the Coen Brothers’ 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis (primarily music from the ‘60s folk revival).
Already among the most celebrated records of 2015, and certain to rate highly on critics’ lists of year-end favorites, Tomorrow Is My Turn is Giddens’ answer to her producer’s question: “What’s your dream record? What do you want to do?” In an interview at The Bluegrass Situation, Giddens said, “I had this short list of songs I had put aside, because they didn’t really fit into the Chocolate Drop mold, and they were all by my favorite women artists.”
Here is Giddens’ chance to step into a solo spotlight under her own name for the first time, and what does she do? She shows respect to a legacy of performers who have come before her. She lifts up their songs instead of making the moment all about her. Even the title, which might at first sound like boastfulness, is actually a Nina Simone song. “There’s a performance on YouTube that I saw and I was just transfixed by it,” she says. “The intensity of her performance became the emotional heart of the record.”
In a time when so many performers seem intent on writing self-referential songs, Giddens brings into the spotlight things that are too good to let go, songs that connect us to a legacy of powerful female performers and artists. Because of T Bone Burnett’s wisdom in recognizing the same kind of wholeness and heart in her, Giddens gets to set her first footprints along that solitary path. But she insists—raising songs by Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, and Geeshey Wiley—that she is not making her way on her own strength, but in communion with those who go before her, and beside her, enlisting backup vocals from legends Tata Vega and Jean King, two of the talents highlighted in 20 Feet to Stardom.
Turn this one up loud:
I’m particularly obsessed with this track right now because of how, through Giddens, it ties us to another great artist who deserves to be well-known and revered in American music: Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Born in 1915 to cotton pickers Katie Bell Nubin and Willis Atkins in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, Rosetta Nubin was already rocking a guitar by age four. A child prodigy, she wasted no time. She made the name Sister Rosetta Tharpe known faster than most young people make it through high school, commanding stages, stirring up congregations, and blowing minds through the 1930s and 1940s. Called “the original soul sister” and the “Godmother of Rock n’ Roll,” she became “the first superstar of gospel music” in America by charging her gospel songs with jolts of blues, jazz, and rock.
It’s impossible to quantify the measure of her influence. She was Johnny Cash’s favorite singer when he was a kid. She invited a young man up onto the stage to sing with her, and that lightning-bolt experience inspired his own career pursued under the name Little Richard. Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Isaac Hayes, Tina Turner, and Michelle Shocked have paid homage
Sister Rosetta, of course, had influences of her own—namely, Arizona Dranes, the “fast Texas” pianist of the 1920s. And in this game of Connect-the-Musicians, Dranes points us to an artist I’ve already heralded in this column: Andrae Crouch. You can trace those links here.
The sight of Sister Rosetta caught up in some kind of Holy Roller spirit, jamming on a guitar while a robed choir claps and sings behind her is a spectacle so astonishing that filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet included it in one of his films. When his puckish heroine Amélie meets an old painter housebound due to illness, she makes a video mixtape of the world’s wonders, bringing them to him since he cannot go out to them. And sure enough, there’s Sister Rosetta, raising a holy ruckus.
In 2003, a Sister Rosetta tribute album Shout, Sister, Shout was produced, featuring performances by Joan Osborne, Janis Ian, and Victoria Williams, among others. And in 2004, Tharpe’s 1944 recording of “Down by the Riverside” was selected for the American Library of Congress National Recording Registry.
I began to appreciate her while listening to Sam Phillips, which makes sense. Sister Rosetta caused controversy by singing gospel-based lyrics to music that sounded suspiciously secular, and Phillips did the same, breaking out of the confines of her early career as a Christian pop star, and moving on to sing for larger audiences through a perspective of faith rather than merely singing about a perspective of faith. On her first self-produced album, Phillips heralded Sister Rosetta as a sort of patron saint. Don’t Do Anything included a song that would become a worldwide sensation when it was covered by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant: “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us,” but I actually prefer it when Sam sings it on her own.
In my interview with Phillips for Image, I brought up the spectacular success of that song. She answered,
If I’m about anything at this point in my life, it’s writing songs. I’m not even about singing those songs. I’ll tell you, when I saw Alison sing “Sister Rosetta” live, it was like seeing that song go out and have a life. Like a child off to college, it was flying the nest. It was beyond me. That was such a great reward. . . . That’s what I feel strongest about: I want songs to go beyond me, so they won’t be stuck with my voice and my versions of them. I want them to go and have their own lives, so they’ll mean something to somebody twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years from now.
That’s what draws me to artists who focus on something besides themselves, who seek to respect the greatness that has inspired them and to give new, lasting life to occasions of beauty, vision, and excellence. That’s what draws me to Rhiannon Giddens. To Sam Phillips. To Sister Rosetta. And, recently, to the work of a gospel singer who was an inspiration to Rosetta herself.
Maybe you’re too sick to go outside, like that poor painter in Amélie. Maybe you’re an artist stepping out into a spotlight for standing ovations. Maybe you just need fuel in your tank, a restoration of your spirit. Open yourself to the glory reflected by Rhiannon Giddens, which shone to her from Sister Rosetta Tharpe, which shone to her from Arizona Dranes. They go before us, guided by a signal we can trust. As Phillips sings,
I hear Rosetta singing in the night
Echoes of light that shine like stars after they’re gone
And tonight she’s my guide as I go on alone
With the music up above. . . . .
Here’s one for all of my Seattle neighbors, an adrenalin shot to the heart in the middle of a gray and rainy weekend, brought to you from a legendary show in Manchester, England, 1964.